Robert Harris: 'The Ghost' of Tony Blair Robert Harris' new novel features a once-popular former British prime minister who becomes fiercely criticized for collaborating with the United States in war. The character's name is Adam Lang, not Tony Blair, but otherwise the similarities are unmistakable.
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Robert Harris: 'The Ghost' of Tony Blair

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Robert Harris: 'The Ghost' of Tony Blair

Robert Harris: 'The Ghost' of Tony Blair

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

This Halloween morning is as good a time as any to talk about a book called "The Ghost." With that title, the novelist Robert Harris refers to a different kind of ghost.

Mr. ROBERT HARRIS (Author): I just really was interested in this phenomenon of the ghostwriter. It implies a slight failure as a writer that you are reduced to being a ghostwriter for the money.

INSKEEP: And so Robert Harris, a successful writer, tells the story of a ghostwriter who is supposed to help finish the memoir of a former British prime minister. He's a world leader who recently left office. The writer settles in to listen to that politician - once powerful, now unpopular - as the politician explains an episode in his life story.

Mr. HARRIS: It was a story he must have told a thousand times. But you wouldn't have guessed it watching him that morning. He was sitting back in his chair, smiling at the memory, going over the same old words, using the same rehearsed gestures. He was miming knocking on a door. And I thought, what an old trooper he was, the sort of pro who'd always make an effort to put on a good show whether he had an audience of one or one million.

INSKEEP: Robert Harris says he wanted to write that scene from the point of view of a ghostwriter for years.

Mr. HARRIS: But I couldn't find either the setting for the novel or, indeed, the character of the world leader. And it wasn't until about 18 months ago that I heard a report that Tony Blair could conceivably face war crimes trials and might have to seek asylum in the United States to avoid extradition that I felt, well, that would be good. That gives me a setting and that gives me a potential character I could use.

INSKEEP: We should mention, it's not that this character is in every detail Tony Blair, but we do have a former British prime minister who was in office about 10 years, was very popular at the beginning. Then he was fiercely criticized for collaborating with the United States in the war on terror, which does sound like somebody we've met before.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HARRIS: Put like that, yes, of course there are similarities between my fictional ex-prime minister called Adam Lang and Tony Blair. I wanted to, you know, get across the kind of character of politics today. And I know Tony Blair and it seemed appropriate to satirize him in some ways, but the character himself is fictional and in no way do I mean to imply that Mr. Blair, or indeed Mrs. Blair - because there's an ex-prime minister's wife in this book - I don't want anyone to think that I'm suggesting that they would behave in this way.

INSKEEP: Although there you go.

(Soundbite of laughter)

INSKEEP: How did you come to know Tony Blair?

Mr. HARRIS: Well, I used to be a political journalist in Britain, a columnist on the London Sunday Times. And then in 1992, when he was still a rising Labour politician, he got in touch with me and we went and had lunch. And from that point on we kept in contact and stayed in touch. We had our ups and downs. But we didn't really fall out until the invasion of Iraq, which made no sense to me. And the book is filled with a sort of disillusion, I suppose, and a sort of anger that Britain went along with something which seemed so - even at the time - to be a bridge too far and rather illogical.

INSKEEP: You send this former prime minister to Martha's Vineyard, where he's trying to quietly finish this multimillion dollar memoir. It's winter. He's alone. It's cold on the island.

Mr. HARRIS: That was fantastic. I wanted to set the book in the United States, where this prime minister ends up trapped because there's a war crime investigation launched against him. The books open with the ex-prime minister's first ghostwriter falling off the Martha's Vineyard ferry.

INSKEEP: And drowning.

Mr. HARRIS: Yes, a death which turns out to be suspicious.

INSKEEP: I want to ask about that, too. People are wondering why this first ghostwriter would have died. Did he fall? Was he thrown? Did he throw himself? One of the speculations seems to be that maybe he was driven mad by the complete emptiness of the prime minister he's trying to characterize. Do you think that all politicians end up a little bit empty, a little bit hard to find anybody home?

Mr. HARRIS: Yes. I think it's very, very hard not to go slightly crazy if you're in the top in politics, especially if you're there for a long time. You know, it was always an isolating job. But the level of security now, to take one obvious example, is enormous. I put a couple of things in the book, which I know to be true, about Tony Blair; for instance, trying to pay for dinner for friends when on holiday in America, proudly flourishing his credit card, and he'd have the maitre d of the restaurant come back and say I'm afraid there's still the strip on it and it's never been signed or activated.

These people become completely isolated from the world. I don't think a lot of world leaders these days are very well-read. I don't think Mr. Blair knew very much about the Middle East. I think he assumed that invading Iraq would be a walkover, or at least that the Americans would sort it all out. And it's that kind of isolation and shallowness that's bred by the modern media age where we seen to have lost depth in our politicians.

INSKEEP: Which you think even affects someone like Tony Blair, who for the longest time was seen as an extremely smart guy. He was remaking his party and trying things that British politicians had not been able to try for years and years, if ever.

Mr. HARRIS: Well, he is - he was a very smart guy. There's no doubt about that. And he was a very clever lawyer. But there is a sort of shallowness, a lawyer with a brief quality to him, which I think was in the end his tragedy and his undoing.

INSKEEP: Meaning that rather than figuring out what he stood for, he was willing to pick up the case and argue it brilliantly for - well, somebody, but it wasn't even clear who for.

Mr. HARRIS: Yes. I mean, in a curious way, Tony Blair was George W. Bush's ghostwriter himself. He made - it seemed to many people, I think, in America as well as here, he made Bush's case almost better than Bush made it, and adopted a sort of subservient role to the president of the United States, which was I don't think in the interests of my country or yours either particularly.

INSKEEP: Hmm. It seems easy at this moment in history to take a shot at Tony Blair. Did you find yourself as a writer struggling or working to figure out what was sympathetic or what could still be respected about this man?

Mr. HARRIS: Well, yes. And I hope that if people read the novel they will see that Adam Lang, the fictional prime minister, has many qualities and is rather a noble man, a tragic figure, not vicious, not mean, not a liar either. I think it's important to remember about Tony Blair. I don't think that he ever consciously lied. I think he believed the case, or at least like a good lawyer convinced himself.

I'm not someone who loathes all politicians as a kind of reflex action. I think they are terrific characters quite often and live on the edge, which is why one of the morals of the book is that they need ghostwriters because people with that degree of drive and focus on the immediate issue ahead are not reflective. They are incapable of having really detailed memories like the rest of us do. They live so much in the present. That's why they can succeed, and that's why most politicians need to have a ghostwriter to flesh them out, so to speak, which is what the ghostwriter goes out to do in this book. Unfortunately, as he starts to flesh him out, he starts to realize there's something terribly wrong about this ex-prime minister and his entourage.

INSKEEP: Robert Harris is author of "The Ghost." Thanks very much.

Mr. HARRIS: My pleasure.

INSKEEP: Just last week, the real Tony Blair sold his memoirs for a reported $9 million.

To hear about Tony Blair's response to this novel, go to npr.org.

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